Improving Firefighter Safety in the Wildland-Urban Intermix
Each year, the incursion of private residences in wildland, increases
the chance that wildland and structural firefighters will battle an
uncontrolled fire in the "Wildland-Urban Intermix", where homes and
naturally occurring vegetation are the fuels at risk.
While the natural fuel types of these fires may differ based on
geographic and climatic conditions, one factor remains constant:
the risk to firefighters.
Four distinct groups are key players in the Wildland-Urban
Intermix. Their relationship to firefighter safety - before an
ignition and once a fire is burning - is critical. These groups
include the community, the home owners, the fire agency, and
Defining the Players
For this paper the 'community' is defined as the level of government
that is responsible for laws, regulations, statutes, and ordinances
that control developments, planning, and law enforcement in areas
defined as intermix.
Perhaps the most important function the community can play to
ensure firefighter safety is through planning. By requiring
developers and builder to adhere to strict standards for building
materials, clearing limits, and fire resistant plant species for
landscaping, the community can help ensure that firefighters have a
reasonable chance to safely fight a fire.
Access is a critical component of suppressing any fire, and
becomes even more critical in wildland-urban intermix fires. Road
width, traffic flow, curve radius, and bridge weight limits all
impact on the timeliness and ability of fire apparatus to reach a
fire, or to gain access to protect a structure.
The homeowner who chooses to live in the intermix has an important
role. The choice of the construction design and building materials can
significantly affect a residence's fire safety. Maintaining the
defensible space, reducing naturally occurring hazards, and preventing
unwanted fires are all responsibilities of the homeowner.
The Fire Agency
The overall responsibility for ensuring the safety of firefighters
lies with the agency having jurisdiction for the area. Once a fire
ignition occurs, it is too late to take steps that are essential to
ensure a safe and efficient fire suppression operation.
Communications have always been identified as a critical component
in firefighter safety. In the wildland-urban intermix environment
the capability of a communications system to function across
jurisdictional boundaries is even more critical. These fires nearly
always involve numerous fire agencies, often operating under a
unified command structure. Agencies must provide their firefighters
with communication systems capable of functioning in these
environments. Failure to do so threatens firefighter safety and
limits their ability to perform effectively. Communications
failures or overload have been identified as a serious problem on
both the Oakland Hills fire (California) and the Spokane,
Washington Firestorm fires in 1991, and as a causal factor of the
1993 Glenallen Fire fatalities in Los Angeles County.
Physical fitness, the physical ability to do the job at hand, is
another key area where fire agencies can have a positive influence
on firefighter safety. Heart attacks were among the leading causes
of firefighter fatalities (21%) on both wildfires and structural
fires in the USA during the 1990's.
Another area where fire agencies have a major role in fire fighter
safety is in developing policies and standard operating procedures
(SOP's) specific to the wildland-urban intermix fire operations.
Firefighters are the most critical players in affecting their own
safety on wildland-urban intermix fires. Shakespeare said :"To thine
own self be true." This is especially applicable to the individual
firefighter. Although many actions of the community, homeowner, and
fire agency can help ensure firefighters' safety, firefighters as
individuals, or as members of a team, are ultimately responsible for
their own safety.
Firefighters have the responsibility to ensure they are physically
fit for the job. They also have an individual responsibility to use
appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).
The best training is wasted if the individual involved is unable
to apply that training and respond appropriately. Situational
awareness - knowing what is happening around you - is important if
they are to safely and efficiently perform their job.
All firefighters, regardless of their position in the fire
organisation, must do all they can to foster communications with
other individuals above and below them.
Maintaining constant communications is a cornerstone of fire
During the Fire
Up to this point, we have discussed firefighter safety before a
wildland-urban intermix incident occurs. Once such a fire starts, a
whole new group of factors come into play.
Access can quickly become a critical factor once a fire occurs. If the
civilian population is attempting to leave an area on the same roads
that firefighters are using to enter the area, the result can be
traffic jams, unsafe driving practices, and ultimately, gridlock for
both civilian vehicles and the fire appliances. When this occurs
during active fire behaviour, firefighters may become trapped in
dangerous locations, as they were in the Calabasas Incident in Los
Angeles County during the 1996 fire season. On that incident,
firefighters trying to cross a midslope road were prevented from
leaving a "chimney" by a civilian vehicle attempting to leave the
area. When the fire made a strong uphill run through the chimney, the
firefighters were burned over.
Local firefighters may need to be assigned with firefighters from
other areas to help them move throughout the fire area.
It is likely that the majority of residents threatened by a
wildland-urban intermix fire will be grossly unprepared for
evacuation. Some will be unwilling to leave their property. Their
chaotic exodus, or their refusal to leave, may pose a serious risk to
Firefighters entering the wildland-urban intermix area for fire
suppression activities face a variety of hazards that differ from the
typical hazards in either wildfires or structural fires. Although
intermix fires appear to be simply wildfires that threaten to burn
residences, such fires represent unique, high-risk hazards that
require special attention to prevent injury or death.
Propane, LPG, and Natural Gas lines
Mix of Forces
Nearly every wildland-urban intermix fire results in responses from a
number of fire agencies, both wildland and structural. Unless properly
co-ordinated, the mix of forces that responds to a fire can be a risk
to firefighter safety. The variety of equipment, differing levels of
training and experience, and the integration of hand crews, mechanized
equipment, and air operations all offer opportunities for a breakdown
in safe work practices. In that environment, firefighters and fire
officers must be especially alert to the co-ordination required in
using this mix of forces, and must follow their own agency's safe
practices and procedures despite differences with the practices and
procedures used by co-operators.
Command and Control
The command and control of intermix fires is often complicated.
Factors that can cause confusion and conflicts and increase risk to
firefighter safety include:
structural versus wildfire training and experience
lack of co-ordination with law enforcement agencies
and the sense of urgency that finds multiple dissimilar
resources assigned to a common protection objective.
Close and timely co-ordination of responsible agencies is
essential as soon as intermix fires occur. Although much of the
needed co-ordination can take place during the off season, the
critical interchange of information and agreements on operating
procedures must occur on the fire ground between the designated
fire officers from each involved agency. Especially sensitive areas
areas of responsibility,
communication links between resources,
co-ordination of air resources,
clear definition of boundaries such as division breaks,
and emergency medical evacuation procedures.
Failure to adequately plan and execute the steps necessary to
ensure firefighter safety in the wildland-urban intermix has
resulted in close calls, injuries and fatalities:
On the Dude Fire (1990) in Arizona, six firefighters died when
extreme fire behaviour, terrain, and poor command and control
resulted in a burnover.
On the Wasatach Fire (1990) in Utah, two firefighters died while
trying to cut a dozer line along a fire threatening a
sub-division. Communication was difficult because of the amount
of radio traffic on the operating frequency.
On the Sunrise Fire (1995) on Long Island, New York, where
numerous firefighters in full structural turnout gear
experienced heat stress injuries while attempting to fight a
fast-moving intermix fire on a hot August day.
Fires in the wildland-urban intermix will occur more and more
frequently. Co-ordinated efforts between the community, homeowners,
fire agencies, and firefighters before the fire occurs are essential
to ensure firefighter safety. These measures must be reinforced by
safety-conscious performance by both firefighters and fire officers
once fires are being fought in the wildland-urban intermix.
USDA Forest Service
Technology and Development Program